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Retailers Are Adding More Security Guards To Stores — And A Lot Of Them Are Carrying Guns

Forbes 9/9/2022 Lauren Debter, Forbes Staff
More retailers are hiring armed security guards. NRedmond/Getty Images © Provided by Forbes More retailers are hiring armed security guards. NRedmond/Getty Images

Faced with rising theft and violence — and pressure from scared employees — grocery stores and other retailers are bulking up on armed security.

One Saturday night in April, thieves entered a Gristedes grocery store on Manhattan’s tony Upper East Side and bound two employees with zip ties at gunpoint before making off with thousands of dollars in stolen goods. It was just the latest brazen incident the grocery chain has faced recently, with thieves now regularly stealing meat, Häagen-Dazs ice cream, Tide laundry detergent and Dove body soap from the aisles every week.

In response, billionaire owner John Catsimatidis bulked up security, hiring brawny former police officers carrying guns to be stationed at each of his 30 Gristedes and D’Agostino’s stores, incurring costs that he’ll either absorb or pass along to shoppers in the form of higher prices.

“It has become open season on stores,” Catsimatidis told Forbes. “We want to have the reputation that if you steal from us or harm our employees, there will be hell to pay. Go steal someplace else.”

While a national debate rages over whether armed guards should be stationed at public places like schools, retailers around the country are beefing up armed security presence in stores, mostly using ex-police and military. Since July 2021, there’s been a 108% increase in demand for armed guards at grocery stores, according to Allied Universal, one of the world’s largest security staffing firms, which works with many of the nation’s biggest retailers and shopping malls.

“There’s been an absolute distinct change in security and the challenges” facing retailers since the pandemic, said Steve Jones, Allied Universal’s CEO. “All of them have had to relook at their security posture and all of them have had to add additional layers of security.”

In December, Iowa-based grocery chain Hy-Vee said it would be adding armed guards to its stores. The move was intended to “provide another layer of safety and security for our customers,” chief operating officer Jeremy Gosch said in a statement. The 285-store grocer released a video that shows security staff in black uniforms roaming the aisles, appearing to have badges, guns, handcuffs and pepper spray. The decision was not prompted by any one incident, the company said, but rather a rise in retail theft nationwide.

Another grocery chain, ShopRite, added armed guards at some stores in the early innings of the pandemic when it faced a crush of customers rushing to stock up on items for quarantine. Guards patrolled the aisles and stood at the front door.

Security firms are being inundated with requests. The number of calls from retailers interested in increasing their security has jumped by more than 50% in the past 12 months, said Sean Meehan, director of sales and marketing at UFI Security.

“It has become open season on stores ... We want to have the reputation that if you steal from us or harm our employees, there will be hell to pay.”

John Catsimatidis, owner of New York City supermarket chain Gristedes

Retailers have had to grapple with a host of new challenges since the start of the pandemic, including mask mandates, social distancing rules and supply chain disruptions that have annoyed and upset customers and at times led to confrontations with employees. One retail employee had their arm broken while working in a store because they asked a customer to wear a mask.

There’s also been a rise in smash-and-grab burglaries, with groups of professional thieves breaking into stores and grabbing thousands of dollars of merchandise. Often times, these goods are then resold online. Nearly 70% of retailers reported a rise in organized retail crime last year, contributing to theft and losses of as much as $69 billion a year, according to the Retail Industry Leaders Association and the Buy Safe America Coalition.

Store employees, generally instructed not to physically confront a thief for their own safety, are beginning to ask for more backup. In Colorado, union members are pushing for armed guards at Albertson’s and Kroger locations. Some Starbucks workers have also been requesting security officers. Best Buy CEO Corie Barry commented last year that rising theft at its stores could make it more difficult to hire and retain workers.

“Now there’s more uncertainty by our members who aren’t sure if a situation could arise while they’re working the stores,” said Marc Perrone, the international president for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents 1.3 million members at grocery stores like Kroger, Ralphs and Fred Meyer.

The UFCW will offer active shooter training at its next convention in an effort to prepare members to respond in such a situation. It’s also pushing for Congress to pass the Stop Violence Act, which would make grocery stores eligible for the same federal funding provided to other workplaces that regularly experience acts of violence.

While armed guards have long been common at jewelry stores and other high-end retailers, an increasing number of retailers are exploring the option. For instance, marijuana dispensaries have been reaching out in droves about adding armed security officers, said Scott Sturgess, VP of sales and marketing at Arrow Security. The increased interest has helped the company’s revenue quadruple in the last two years. “We are exploding,” said Sturgess.

Smoke shops have been adding unarmed guards to their locations a lot more lately too, said Alan Cruz, chief operating officer at Private Sector Security, based in Los Angeles. “They are getting robbed in broad daylight,” said Cruz.

A photo of a recent smash-and-grab robbery was shown during a news conference in Los Angeles to announce arrests and discuss safety measures. MediaNews Group via Getty Images © Provided by Forbes A photo of a recent smash-and-grab robbery was shown during a news conference in Los Angeles to announce arrests and discuss safety measures. MediaNews Group via Getty Images

Requests for armed security officers tend to pick up after national tragedies, like the shooting at Tops in Buffalo, New York, or the King Sooper’s store in Colorado, said Matthew Stanton, general manager at GardaWorld, a global security staffing firm. But those requests are often temporary in nature, maybe for four to six weeks, because of the expense involved. “More times than not, it’s reactionary,” Stanton said.

Since armed guards must be licensed and often come from previous military or law enforcement careers, they command higher pay. The labor shortage has also made it more difficult to meet rising demand, with security firms now offering higher wages and starting bonuses to attract qualified candidates.

Their role has become more involved, too. While security officers used to be tasked with simply observing and reporting shoplifters and other troublemakers to the police, retailers are increasingly stationing them prominently in the front of stores to act as a visual deterrence and asking them to actively engage with customers suspected of wrongdoing. Those in shopping malls now routinely administer Narcan to people found in the bathroom after overdosing on opioids.

“In retail, the amount of shoplifting, petty theft and aggressive behavior has increased,” said Jones. “So the role of the security officer has changed dramatically, too. They are having to help assist and respond in tragic events.”

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